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Ruth Brown: Biography & Songs

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever wanted to sing your heart out? Blues singer Ruth Brown sure did! In this lesson, learn about the career and hit songs of Brown, one of the pioneering women of Rhythm and Blues music.

Early Years

Ruth Brown, nee Ruth Weston (1928 - 2006), was born in Portsmouth, Virginia. Her father directed a church choir, and young Ruth was singing in it by the age of four. But she had a rebellious streak and preferred the sounds of jazz and popular music to more sacred offerings. As a teen, she pretended to attend choir practice while actually performing for soldiers in the nearby USO clubs. Here, when she was only 17, she met Jimmy Brown, a trumpeter and sailor. The two fell in love and fled to Detroit-- they married, but it didn't last because Jimmy was already married to someone else. But Ruth kept the surname Brown as she pursued her performing career.

Breakthrough

In the late 1940s, Brown found her way to Washington, D.C., where she met famous band leader and musician Cab Calloway's sister, singer Blanche Calloway. She offered Brown a job singing at the club she then owned, Crystal Caverns. There, Brown came to the attention of a local D.J. who told executives at Atlantic Records about her. They heard her and, very impressed, offered her a contract. In 1948, she signed with Atlantic. But her career suffered a setback when she was seriously injured in an auto accident. Persevering, she spent almost a year recovering before making her debut (still on crutches) in 1949.

Rhythm and Blues Hit Songs

Brown scored her first hit on the Billboard Rhythm and Blues charts in 1949 with the blues ballad 'So Long.' Rhythm and Blues (usually shortened to R and B) was a type of music that combined elements of gospel, jazz and blues. It featured strong vocals and came out of African-American musical traditions. Billboard, a trade journal for the music industry, coined the term Rhythm and Blues in 1949, and Brown was at the forefront of musicians in building its popularity. She had five number one hits on the R and B charts in the 1950s, including the up-tempo 'Teardrops from My Eyes' in 1950, '5-10-15 Hours' in 1952, '(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean' in 1953 and 'Mambo Baby' and 'Oh What a Dream' (recorded with The Drifters), both in 1954.

And Brown met success with more than R and B audiences. Two of those hit songs, '5-10-15 Hours' and '(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean,' also became hits on the Pop music charts, meaning they were popular with both white and black audiences. Additionally, Brown recorded two non-R and B songs, 'Lucky Lips' (1957) and 'This Little Girl's Gone Rockin' ' (1958), that became hits on the Pop charts. Brown's huge success with Atlantic Records gave rise to a nickname for the company: ''The House that Ruth Built.''

Career Challenges and Resurgence

Unfortunately, however, success didn't translate to wealth. Despite Brown's popularity and partially due to the business practices of the time, companies like Atlantic made singers pay their own tour expenses and re-recorded R and B songs with white singers for white audiences, sometimes called whitewashing. Brown never made a lot of money during this part of her career. Also, two more failed marriages took their toll. She left Atlantic and her singing career faltered in the 1960s, when she worked a series of low-paying jobs, including that of bus driver, while struggling to raise her two young sons.

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